It has been reported this week that Vladimir Putin is shifting responsibility for covert operations in Ukraine to a different intelligence agency.
The Fifth Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has now reportedly been usurped by ‘military intelligence’ – still widely known by its old acronym of GRU, but actually called the GU, the main directorate of the general staff. Lt Gen. Vladimir Alekseev, first deputy head of the GU, is now expected to take over Russia’s intelligence capabilities in Ukraine.
To some this is evidence of inter-agency conflict and the decline of the FSB inside the Kremlin’s walls. But it is more likely that Putin is simply digging in for a long war.
It’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin isn’t prone to introspection. He certainly doesn’t appear to be willing to acknowledge his own blunders when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine. Nor does he seem to appreciate that shuffling the bridge crew of his personal Titanic is not going to stop his foundering ship from sinking.
The message of Putin’s Victory Day on 9 May speech was, in effect, that the war would go on and that Russians should prepare themselves for more deaths and a lot more economic hardship, because he has no intention of backing down from this brutal and pointless campaign. Reports of an intelligence shake-up must be seen in this context.
The claim that GRU is taking over comes from the well-respected journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, and is connected to an article on the nationalist Russian TV channel Tsargrad.
There certainly have been claims that the FSB has fallen out of favour lately, with Borogan and Soldatov also reporting that one of the agency’s deputy heads, Sergei Beseda, was under arrest, although he has since been seen back in his office. Certainly his part of the FSB, which handles overseas operations for what is primarily a domestic secret police agency, has not covered itself in glory. It was given a substantial budget to corrupt Ukrainian officials and public figures so that they would change sides on the day of the invasion, apparently to no avail.
Beseda presumably also joined the chorus of Kremlin officials who parroted before the invasion the ahistorical and politically-illiterate assumption that Ukraine is an artificial state and would welcome Russia’s ‘liberators’. But he would not have been alone in this. For years it has been clear that Putin – at least when it comes to geopolitics and especially his personal bête noire of Ukraine – is not interested in honest discussion, just wholehearted support from his underlings.
Maybe Beseda did need to be given a scare. After all, in such a system, the monarch can never be wrong, and if anything fails to go to plan, it must be because he was misinformed or his orders not carried out correctly. But otherwise there is little to suggest that the FSB as a whole is in the doghouse. Claims of a purge of a hundred, even 150 officers, have not been corroborated, and while FSB director Alexander Bortnikov is due to retire sooner than later on grounds of age and ill health, he remains one of Putin’s closest allies.
More to the point: of course the GU is going to come to the fore in the current circumstances. This is war. There is little room for the kind of sneaky subversion and bribe-fuelled influence operations in which the Fifth Service specialises. Politics in Ukraine has been virtually suspended, president Volodymyr Zelensky is for the moment untouchable, and to voice even the faintest support for Moscow in Ukraine is in effect treason.
The GU is broadly divided between what is called the Agentura, ‘the Agency’, which is its regular intelligence arm (think of all those well-groomed and personable 'military attaches' in its embassies, before so many of them were expelled) and the hard men of the Spetsnaz special forces. Alekseev is involved with the special forces, who have worked on sabotage, battlefield reconnaissance and ‘wet work’ – a euphemism for assassination (as in ‘wet’ with blood) – since the Soviet era.
This is exactly what the Kremlin needs at the moment, so it is not surprising that the GU and Alekseev are in the ascendant. We can expect more state terrorism, more cyberattacks, and more ‘wetness’ in general in Ukraine. But we can also expect the FSB to be carrying on its attempts to disrupt and undermine not just Ukraine, but the West in general – and the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, to continue spying and recruiting as best it can (considering many of its agents in western countries have been expelled).
Above all, this is a sign of Putin digging in. His dreams of a quick and easy seizure of Ukraine have been dashed, but he is not willing to acknowledge that he may have miscalculated. Instead, he is willing to throw every asset into the war and willing to squander everything Russia has in this vain pursuit.